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NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Wednesday rejected General Motors Co's bid to dismiss the first so-called "bellwether" case over defective ignition switches in its vehicles, clearing the way for a Jan. 11 trial.
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan said the plaintiff, Robert Scheuer, presented enough evidence to justify letting a jury decide whether an alleged ignition switch defect in his 2003 Saturn Ion caused or enhanced his injuries from a 2014 crash.
Furman also refused to accept GM's argument that Scheuer's claims arising solely from the Detroit-based automaker's conduct following its 2009 bankruptcy failed as a matter of law.
These claims included GM's alleged failure to properly warn Scheuer about the defect, and were the only claims that could expose GM to punitive damages, the judge wrote.
Scheuer sued GM after another vehicle forced him off an Oklahoma highway on May 28, 2014, causing him to crash head-on into two trees. His Ion's front airbags did not deploy, which he said resulted from a defective ignition switch.
Bellwether trials are sometimes used in product liability litigation in which hundreds or thousands of people have similar claims. The outcomes can help parties determine whether to keep litigating or to settle. Six bellwether trials are scheduled in the GM litigation for 2016, court records show.
Furman's decision "paves the way for the jury to have an unfettered and full view of GM's behavior in covering up this defect," Scheuer's lawyer Bob Hilliard said in a statement.
GM spokesman James Cain said in a phone interview: "We are fully prepared to go to trial, and introduce evidence showing that the ignition switch issue did not cause the injuries in this accident, or cause the airbags not to deploy."
An ignition switch defect on Ions, Chevrolet Cobalts and other GM vehicles could cause engines to stall and prevent airbags from deploying in crashes.
GM in February 2014 began recalling 2.6 million vehicles to fix the defect, despite being aware of a possible problem a decade earlier.
In September, GM agreed to pay $900 million and enter a deferred prosecution agreement to end a related U.S. criminal probe. The defect has been linked to at least 124 deaths.
The case is In re: General Motors LLC Ignition Switch Litigation, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 14-md-02543.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Richard Chang